By Solvej Schou
Updated September 05, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
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With roughly 400 films screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, which runs Thursday through Sept. 16, choosing which movies to keep an eye on can feel like wading into a large pool of marbles, with each one a slightly different color, shade, and texture. Documentaries? Check. Mega sci-fi tent pole pictures? Definitely. Animated family fare? Indeed. Foreign films from Japan to Argentina? Yep.

Beyond Oscar-buzz movies such as Ben Affleck’s political thriller Argo, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor’s tsunami saga The Impossible, the John Hawkes and Helen Hunt polio survivor-meets-sex surrogate dramedy The Sessions, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader drama The Master, Emma Watson’s coming-of-age high school tale The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Marion Cotillard’s emotional whale trainer-in-wheelchair French-language drama Rust and Bone, there’s a spate of movies to watch out for.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes head-to-head with Bruce Willis in the opening night premiere of Looper, Kristen Stewart stars in beat flick On the Road, and Brian De Palma, six years after directing his last film, introduces his sex-oozing thriller Passion, with a blonde Rachel McAdams swapping smooches with Noomi Rapace.

Below, check out a preview of some of the films we’re excited to see at Toronto, from the big budget feature to indies:

Looper

One of the most anticipated films at the fest makes its premiere Thursday night. Brick director Rian Johnson’s Looper is a swirling, skittering sci-fi thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also starred in Brick. Gordon-Levitt plays a mob assassin called a looper who is tasked with killing himself — 30 years in the future — played by Bruce Willis. Through time travel (and amazing makeup), Gordon-Levitt’s soft baby face is eerily hound-dogged into looking like Willis’ gritty one.

Seven Psychopaths

Directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), Seven Psychopaths includes a who’s who cast who’ve all played their fare share of psychopaths: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken. Farrell, who headlined In Bruges, stars here as a struggling screenwriter attempting to write a script about serial killers, and enlists the help of an actor buddy, played by Rockwell, who has a dognapping business on the side with Walken. The pair end up stealing a pooch belonging to Harrelson, a mob boss, and bloody hilarity ensues, along with a litany of serial killers. The Midnight Madness screening of the movie this Friday night is slated to be a big draw.

On the Road

Also premiering Thursday is The Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal youth road novel On the Road, starring Kristen Stewart as the lover of Garrett Hedlund, who plays freewheeling protagonist Dean Moriarty. With Stewart crouching low since the media exploded over her affair with her Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders, causing a vampire’s bite rift into her relationship with fellow Twilight-ie Robert Pattinson, all eyes are on Stewart – what will she be wearing? Will she be smiling?

Cloud Atlas

The Matrix directing duo Lana and Andy Wachowski — formerly known as the Wachowski brothers (Larry became Lana) — plus co-director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) premiere their decade-hopping, world-leaping sci-fi fantasy opus Cloud Atlas at the fest. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and Jim Broadbent star in the movie, with an against-type appearance by Hugh Grant, based on David Mitchell’s epic book of the same name. Woven, dense narratives circle through the 1800s, 1930s, 1970s, present-day England, and beyond, into apocalyptic Korea and Hawaii. Visuals, violence, and Hanks as a futuristic tribesman. Sounds heady beyond belief.

Spring Breakers

Beware, Spring Breakers is not for the Disney-fied faint of heart, though it stars gals with Disney-affiliated pasts. Director Harmony Korine (Gummo, Trash Humpers, Mister Lonely) has always been known for spreading a layer of uncomfortable, boundary-pushing sleaze in his films. In Spring Breakers, pouty-lipped Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine’s wife Rachel Korine don bikinis as four hard-partying college girls getting into spring break trouble in Florida. James Franco, as a gangster with a shiny grill, corn rows, and a collection of Hawaiian shirts, bails them out of jail. The movie’s already gained quite a naughty reputation.

What Maisie Knew

In this talked-about version of the Henry James novel, Julianne Moore stars as a rock ‘n’ roller married to Steve Coogan, who plays an art dealer. They divorce, and their kid Maisie — big-eyed, quiet Onata Aprile — is sucked into a world of adult disrepair and conflict. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Bee Season), the movie also stars the ever alluring Alexander Skarsgard.

Hotel Transylvania

One of the most anticipated animated movies at TIFF, Sony’s Hotel Transylvania sports star power, music, and a few sly swats at Twilight. Dracula, voiced with a heavy lilt by an unrecognizable-sounding Adam Sandler, has a problem, a big problem: his precocious 118-year-old vampire daughter Mavis, voiced by Selena Gomez, just wants her freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the monsters-only hotel her doting father runs and keeps her almost imprisoned in to protect her from humans. When Mavis, whose blunt bangs recall hipster chicks from high school, meets very dude-like human Jonathan, voiced like a true valley boy by Andy Samberg, they fall for each other. Dracula no like.

Ginger and Rosa

Orlando director Sally Potter is back with this friendship-centric story of two teen girls, New Zealand’s Alice Englert and Dakota Fanning’s more-adult-than-ever sister Elle Fanning, whose relationship splits apart during the 1960s in London, smack in the middle of the Cold War. Potter has coaxed greatness out of many an actress, and the movie also stars heavyweights Annette Bening and Christina Hendricks.

Passion

Brian De Palma’s Passion looks to be a return to his erotically charged, thriller roots, post-2007’s war movie Redacted. With Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, fresh off sweating and bleeding in Prometheus, circling each other (in bed and otherwise) like horny vipers, Passion plays up its title to the extreme. A remake of the French film Crime d’amour, it follows two women who manipulate, humiliate, and tease each other. Watch out, The Black Dahlia.

Everybody Has a Plan

Viggo Mortensen not only stars in On the Road, but also this thriller from first-time feature director Ana Piterbarg. Everybody Has a Plan is Mortensen’s third Spanish-language film (who knew?) and in a very Cronenbergian twist, a la Jeremy Irons playing twin brothers in 1988’s Dead Ringers, the A Dangerous Method actor plays twin brothers in Argentina. One brother (Mortensen) has a terminal illness, so the other brother (Mortensen) assumes his identity and travels into a world thick with criminals and violence.

Outrage Beyond

Any yakuza-obsessed fan of actor-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano will be happy to know that Outrage Beyond, his sequel to 2010’s Japanese mob thriller Outrage, is premiering at TIFF. Directed by and starring Kitano, whose slouching features can display mischief, and induce fear, the movie revolves around the underbelly mob world of Tokyo. Think crooked cops, ex-gangsters, and splatter-soaked violence.

West of Memphis

There are several documentaries to watch out for at TIFF, including West of Memphis, co-produced by Peter Jackson, and directed by Amy Berg. Celebrities including Johnny Depp and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines have been vocal supporters of the “West Memphis 3” – three heavy metal-loving teens convicted of killing three boys in 1993, jailed for years, then released after new investigations prompted by Jackson and others. This documentary follows their stories. Not only are Depp and Maines slated to be at the movie’s TIFF premiere, but Jackson will be at a press conference via Skype.

Venus and Serena

In this documentary about tennis champs Venus and Serena Williams, directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major delve into their interior lives, from injuries to illness. Seeing ladies with thighs of steel open up their hearts is refreshing, and fans Chris Rock and former President Bill Clinton add their own takes.

Stories We Tell

Anyone who has ever dealt with a deep family secret, the kind that erupts after years and years and lays waste to memories in its path, will likely be able to relate to Sarah Polley’s personal documentary Stories We Tell. The actress-director, so spot-on emotionally with her 2006 film Away From Her, focuses the lens on her own mom. Polley recently revealed in a blog post that the documentary revolves around the story behind Polley finding out that the father who raised her was not her biological dad. Her mother, who died when she was young, had cheated. Even the doc’s trailer, full of archival footage and interviews with her siblings, father, genetic father, and others, is breathtaking in its attempt to understand her mother’s story, and her own.

Reincarnated

Reincarnated, directed by Vice Magazine editor Andy Capper, is one of several music docs at TIFF, and follows hip-hop superstar Snoop Dogg’s rebirth as the Rastafarian, reggae-infatuated Snoop Lion. Snoop made a month-long journey to Jamaica, also becoming known as Berhane (“The Light”). Will it smell like a Venice Beach collective at the TIFF premiere, given the now former rapper’s penchant for pot? That remains to be seen.

For more film news, including on-site coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival follow @solvej_schou

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